Blog Post

Inspiring Change and Networks Beyond the .3%: Welcome HASTAC Scholars!

I just tweeted to 10.3K people that nothing makes me feel more optimistic about the future of higher ed than reading the self-introductions by a new class of HASTAC Scholars.  I lied.  Something else makes me feel even more optimistic:  I feel even more inspired is seeing HASTAC Scholars introduce themselves to one another, making connections across universities and across fields.   If they keep these up, these networks will support them throughout their academic career, in university and beyond.


Why that inspires me so much is that the HASTAC Scholars form one of the very few networks in higher education where the prestige, cost, status, or fame of the individual university matters far less than the voluntary participation by a spirited group of graduate and undergraduate students who have figured out that there is something out there more and other than what they are finding on their campus.   That is not to say there is something wrong with any campus, anywhere.  It is to say that, if you are a HASTAC Scholar, you are likely to want to connect with other leaders from as diverse a background as possible.  


Universities do a lot of tweaking of their admissions criteria to try to ensure diversity but cost is such a barrier that the majority of students at any one university tend to share very key similarities.  In the HASTAC Scholars Program, you connect with a world much closer to the diversity of the real world in its complexity.   And you do it voluntarily.  There are no dues.  There are also no requirements.  You don't get "kicked out" unless you are a bully (hey! hundreds and hundreds of scholars later, I don't think we've ever had to ask someone to stop being a Scholar for bad behavior--is that true, Fiona?  Wow.  Inspired again).


Think about this:  the top ten schools in the infamous U.S. News and World Reports teach only about .3% of the population of college students in the U.S.   That is a more extreme divide than the infamous "1%" of income inequality brought to our attention by the Occupy movement.    Yet almost all the forms and norms and apparatus of contemporary higher education originate and emanate from the universities teaching the .3%.   That is wrong.  It is bad for everyone, for higher education, for success, and even for the .3%.  

Most of the apparatus of contemporary higher education began at the Ivy Leagues between 1865 and 1925.  At that time, about 20% of the nation's student population attended public school.  The Land Grant University was brand new.  Almost all education in the US was private.   Now it is the opposite.  About 80 or 82% of our students attend public universities, not private ones.    Yet nationally, we have been starving our public universities of funding--with repercussions to the less financially endowed private universities too (escalating costs, limited national and state scholarship funding, declining research funding, a declining middle class).

You cannot and should not have a unitary model of education in a system as diverse as the U.S. non-system of higher education.  One reason there was such an outcry against MOOCs in recent years is that, once again, it seemed like those teaching and administering at the .3% would dictate terms to everyone else, top down.


HASTAC, by contrast, is a peer-created network.  There is no syllabus.  No membership dues.  No rules except engaged, respectful, energetic participation.   It's the opposite of college admission.  It's the opposite of SATs.  It's the opposite of a higher education non-system governed by the norms, status, and distinctions of the .3%.   Nor is it dismissive and disrespectful of that .3% rather.  As is HASTAC's motto:  DIFFERENCE IS NOT OUR DEFICIT, IT IS OUR OPERATING SYSTEM.   

The #1 bestseller in the country right now is a book I find pretty obnoxious, Excellent Sheep, which argues that elite education makes smart, docile, passive sheep.  I think a system intrinsically based on income inequality and selective privilege does that--why blame students who are just beginning their careers for a system they did not invent!   Yet, it is not easy to get beyond one's insular class and life.  Not in school, not in the workplace, not in life.

HASTAC Scholars work hard to do that.  Because we believe that, like those who created the Internet with an open architecture to which anyone could contribute, the final product is far better when those who do not share assumptions, skills, and backgrounds contribute to it.  

We invite participation from everyone, including those (I really do hate this term) "excellent sheep" who are  irate about that label.  Why not spread all that is rich and exciting from the .3%, all that bounty?  Not top down.  Networked.  But in a network that extends far, far beyond elite walls to all that is rich and exciting from the 99.7%, all that bounty.  

What is truly exciting is that your school of origin no longer matters in this open network.  You are now all HASTAC Scholars and those numbers are meaningless.  What matters is you, your contribution, what you make of it, how you connect, and how you learn from one another, inspire one another, and, yes, how you inspire all the rest of us too.

Welcome, HASTAC Scholars.  May it be another great year!





I think it painfully ironic that you find Deresiewicz "obnoxious," since, in effect, he's just observing many of the problems you're solving with HASTAC scholars. What's obnoxious is a kind of technophobic academe, that ignores what students know to focus on what they've yet to find out, and demeans their explorations with boundaries like disciplines, grades, points, and other forces of compliance. Most surely there do exist what once we thought was "liberal education" opportunties, but they are too often obscured beyond the bounds of departments, institutions, and the 99.7% you mention.

I find it pleasantly ironic that, on Deresewicz's tour promoting his book, the two colleges the Times mentioned are Columbia and Brown, since I did my BA at one and dropped out of my first doctorate at the other, where I discovered a social network that was - then - antithetic to the precise kind of collegiality you promote for HASTAC and - then - much, much closer to the shephard's field he describes. What he - and you it seems - ignore is that these cycles of subservience go back to the roots of American education, at least, and the "revolution" espoused by Dewey or Larry Cremin for that matter is more "traditional" than "revolutionary." It was Cremin who noted, for example, that we have eight grades because the first graded school in America was built with eight rooms for the convenience of the builder and constraints of the site, not the academic needs or interests of students or teachers. American education is and has always been a convergence of convenience, and now represents - as it has in several past cycles - a convenience of class.

Reforming that convenience is relatively simple, and already evident in oblique and independent innovations. Forty years ago, when Bunker Hill Community College was the first urban community college in Boston, there was an "Open College" that awarded credit and placement for what students learned elsewhere, in order to speed and support their eligability for an Associate Degree. Black Mountain did much of the same for artists a few decades earlier. Correspondence courses, first promoted by Harvard and Columbia in the 1920's, offered much of what MOOCs promise now. Interdisciplinary studies were the "core curriculum" for Hampshire in the 1970's. And tuition free described both Olin and Cooper Union for many years. Combining those "innovations" as you suggested in your piece on Saturday would be unusual but not, in itself, new.

While I agree that "blaming the victim" is an unfair tactic in reforming the criminal, mobilizing those victims to express their real needs and interests, and then solve the problems they see themselves, is .... pretty much .... what liberal education is supposed to do.


HI Joe, I find the designation "excellent sheep" extremely rude, an overgeneralization about all students, a stereotype, not well informed, and not particularly motivating except in the older generation loving to dislike the younger and turn that curmudgeonly tone into a bestseller.  We've seen the format before: if the best and brighest are sheep, what about the rest of this generation?  Not as good as "ours," whatever ours is.  It's a false, obnoxious, dismissive attitude towards youth, whether those are youth at Harvard or at Harper Community College (where I once taught).  I do not like it.  It's the opposite of the kind of intelligent, respectful collegiality we want to inspire as the future of higher education and American society, an antidote to the trivialization of debate that passes for "news" on tv and in much of the media and in too much of academe.

I find a derogatory, snide, patronizing tone towards students antithetical to network building, activism, and true reform of higher education.   Period.    I believe in working together to reform and reinvision higher education.  Name calling? Sheep?   Not. My. Style.   And fingerpointing without proposing real and yet visionary solutions?  No.  And sarcasm and critique without actually working towards something better (which is what I dislike most about that book):  Again, that is the opposite of what we aim to do at HASTAC. 


I just learned that 81% of HASTAC Scholars return a second year.  That's astonishing, for a voluntary network. I am sure one reason is because we encourage a positive, reflective, responsible, creative, adventurous, bold, visionary tone.  Not dismissive.  Not rude.  I find your tone awfully rude in your response to my post too.  It's not the first time.  I'm glad very few of our scholars respond to one another in that way, Joe.  Disagreement is important.  Rudeness shuts down conversation and does not build a movement for change.


It's sad to see that the boundaries of dialog are so rigidly circumscribed. The most important feature of the "liberal arts" is constantly expanding those boundaries and, while I strongly sympathize with your reticence to use "sheep" as a condemnatory term, I don't see it as so ruthlessly insulting to ignore the rest of Deresiewicz. His case for enhancing models like past collegial innovations at places as diverse as Black Mountain or Hampshire is, frankly, more specific, more concrete, and more feasible that most of what I've seen at HASTAC. Were it not for MacArthur's support, you would have lost me long ago. It is, as you say, central to the art of teaching (a non-accidental use of that term) to elicit and encourage collegiality among participants, and dismissive discussions, whether by labels like "sheep" or "rude," tend to undermine the value of other contributions.

I think, actually, that you're responding to Deresiewicz more in his magazine form than his book, although they do use some of the same vocabulary. His case in both the New Republic and Atlantic is against the pomposity of institutional grandeur, more targeted to those colleges who install spas for student "draw" than for those who thrive on diverse opinions. But, as David Truman once observed to me a few years after the Columbia explosion, I "was a Senior when Mark Rudd was a Freshman" and have, perhaps, more sympathy with Occupy than with those more occupied with maintaining "standards" over those who don't get in. The reason for that is precisely why Lincoln supported Land Grant Colleges rather than compliant reformers. I had hoped you wanted structural, organizational, and instructional innovations beyond those of your own invention in a HASTAC environment. And I actually sympathized with your distrust of oversimplfied labels like "sheep," but, I feel like I'm writing to a shephard. Good luck, but luck is rarely enough.


Check out The Guardian on Cooper Union, or their documentary film on what tuition really means. It's not always very polite to raise such questions. As an alumni of Columbia - admittedly before the '68 explosion - I don't see a totally cheerful resolution to the problems now facing higher education.